It has been awhile since any of us have been to Starkville, Mississippi, but I don’t remember any proliferation of black cats or broken mirrors or ladders begging to be walked under.
There are no subdivisions built over cemeteries (cue Craig T. Nelson in Poltergeist — “You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you?! YOU ONLY MOVED THE HEADSTONES! WHY?! WHY?”)
Sorry, I got a little carried away there. But there are no real signs that there is anything spooky going on in Starkville.
Except when Florida’s football team plays a game there.
All week, this has been called the Mullen Bowl. But if you have been following Florida football for longer than a week, you get the willies when you think about the things that happened there.
This isn’t about Dan Mullen returning to Mississippi State and their “Dan Who?” T-shirts.
It’s about Florida returning to play Mississippi State.
A bit of ancient history first. The Gators rarely played in Starkville prior to the mid-1980s. They were only there five times before 1985, playing more games in the state of Florida, including three in a row in Gainesville on two different occasions.
In fact, through 1991 the two teams played more games in the nicer Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Mississippi (12) than in Starkville.
But in 1985 and 1986, Florida played twice in Stark-Vegas. The powerful 1985 team won there. The probation-weakened 1986 team did not and ended up losing four straight games in a 6-5 season.
That was the beginning of it, but it got really weird the last four times Florida went there.
ONE AND DONE
You want to know why you never see the mighty Gators on those Thursday night games? Blame Mississippi State.
The Gators went out there in 1992 for a Thursday night game and came home with a 30-6 loss and a resolve never to play on Thursday nights again.
“I inherited that game,” said Jeremy Foley, who was in his first year as athletic director. “It wasn’t so much that we got beat. We got home at 4 a.m. on Friday and we’re talking about education. It was the worst experience.
“Everything was weird. You’re sitting in the hotel all day and there are no games on and no GameDay. It didn’t feel right for us. I didn’t want to do it again.”
In the game, Florida’s offensive line with two freshmen at the tackles struggled all night. Shane Matthews threw five interceptions and was sacked five times.
“It was close for awhile,” Matthews said. “It was a big deal for me being from Mississippi and it was the only time I got to go back. Obviously, it wasn’t the outcome I wanted.
“We just ran into a buzzsaw. And we weren’t very good, honestly.”
Want a spooky stat? After this game, Florida was 1-2. It was the only time a Steve Spurrier Florida team was ever under .500 during his 12 years at the school. Boo!
The next time Florida went to Starkville, eight years had passed. Florida was ranked third in the country and was expected to roll. But the Gators played another one of those inexplicably poor games, especially on defense.
The Gators lost 47-35. Spurrier was fuming.
“Mississippi State oughta be ashamed tearing down the goalposts after beating this team,” he said.
In the melee on the field, a Florida trainer was injured.
But here’s the scary part of it.
Down eight late in the game, Florida was facing third-and-Tupelo. Spurrier had Rex Grossman run out of the end zone for a safety. He thought it would help field position punting from the 20 instead of the 2-yard line. Except, of course, it went from a one-score game to a two-score game.
And during the game, he also punted on a third-and-forever.
He said he was sick of watching the offense.
“I was sick of watching our defense, too,” Spurrier said Thursday.
The postscript is that Florida won the SEC that year.
“I remember Jackie Sherrill coming on the bus and saying they’d maybe see us in Atlanta,” Spurrier said. “I told him I wasn’t worried about Atlanta, I was worried about LSU the next week.
“We went to Atlanta and they didn’t. We went one way and they went the other. We had a rah-rah meeting and that’s when ‘I Hope You Dance’ was born.”
The Lee Ann Womack song became the theme of the rest of the year.
On top of that, Florida got revenge the next year in Gainesville 52-0. As the teams walked off the field, the scoreboard flashed, “Who Shut The Dogs Out”, an homage to the popular song of the day.
“That last (touchdown) was for the ball boy,” Spurrier said.
SEE YA, ZOOKER
Ron Zook was not a popular choice to succeed Spurrier at Florida and was never accepted by a chunk of the fan base. So he started the 2004 season on the hot seat and it only got warmer with tough losses at Tennessee by two points and at home against LSU by three.
On top of that, the Gators had lost their bye week because of Hurricane Frances and played Middle Tennessee the week before they traveled to Starkville.
Mississippi State had lost to Maine earlier in the season.
But the Bulldogs played inspired football and Florida could not stop the running attack. Jerious Norwood’s 37-yard touchdown with 44 seconds to play won the game and the goalposts came down again.
Zook had confided to friends that he feared the lost bye week would hit his team at some point. It did.
Scary factor — Two days later, the Zooker was fired effective at the end of the season.
Timmy Tebow had a lot of great games at Florida. He won a Heisman Trophy and was part of two national championships. But he had a really bad night in — of course — Starkville.
Even though Florida won the game.
Tebow started strong with a 26-yard touchdown run to give Florida the lead. But with the Gators driving for a score up 13-3, Tebow threw a pick at the goal line that Johnthan Banks returned 100 yards for a touchdown.
And then, late in the game, Banks picked off another Tebow pass and ran it back 20 yards for a touchdown.
Florida won 29-19. After the game, for the only time in his career, Tebow passed on meeting with the media saying he wanted to visit with Mullen. Whether that’s why or not, only Tim knows.
“He was not pleased, but he won it, so he didn’t get poopy pants about it,” Mullen said this week. “He just won the game. We lost. Which one would you rather be?”
Tebow’s stats for the game — 12-of-22 passing for 127 yards and no TDs. He did rush for 88 yards.
But if Starkville can make Tebow ordinary, maybe it is built on an ancient Indian burial ground.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.